Conference, Day Three: A Rule of Thumb & The Invisible Epistle

At Thursday morning’s program (Jan. 15, 2009), attendance was down significantly from yesterday. Is it just me, or could the smiling positive pietism be wearing on the patience of many?

The morning’s panel, entitled “Speak Truth to Power,” was another “surprise” lineup, not identified until we showed up. Yet in fact it was utterly predictable, made up of church lobbyists, all based in Washington.

Individually they were all fine, articulate, dedicated people. Yet they reminded me of a rule of thumb of mine, which is to question whether it is a worthwhile investment of time, expense or energy resources to travel many hours to a gathering, the bottom line of which is being told to write to Congress.

Folks, without getting up from my chair, I am told that daily, again and again. To drive 500 miles to hear it several more times is beyond repetitive, it is tedious and patronizing. Yes these are good groups; but life is short – tell us something we don’t already know, and haven’t heard a hundred times before.

I had imagined (but not expected) a different kind of panel: one featuring several activists who are involved in lively, active, church-based programs far from Washington, but having impact there and in other circles of “power.” The Bronx youth program described Wednesday by Alexie Torres Fleming, which was all new to me, would be a prime example. There are several other such vibrant projects whose activist staff are represented here, who have had and are unlikely to get any such visibility.

Imagination, however, has not been a strong point of the program.

Thursday evening opened with a reading of the event’s Epistle, which has been mentioned previously. It was read to us, and we were told to write responses to it right that minute, on little cards which were then collected. Before the reading we were also advised that (for reasons which I’m hazy about) the text would not include specifics or name names.

This proscription applied not only to the names of persons, but to many other nouns, such as, for instance, “war,” “violence,” or militarism.” However, without the burden of specifics, the text unwittingly took on a load of ambiguity, which got heavier as I listened.

In fact, toward the end, I got an eerie feeling that I had read or heard many similar expressions, not in church documents, but in military texts and prayers. (Yes they exist; oh brother, do they.)

That is, it turns out that much or most of what was read to us in this virtually content-free text could have been endorsed by the most militant war-fighter on Fort Bragg.

Permit me a few examples:

Draft epistle (DE): “We believe this is a time when peace can happen, if we will heed God’s call . . . .”

strategic-air-commandMilitary: “Peace Is Our Profession.” (Motto of the Strategic Air Command – the nuclear bomber fleet) during the years I was growing up on Air Force bases.

DE: ‘We discovered afresh the call of the scriptures to partner with God in walking with people at risk.”

Military: “De oppresso Liber” “To liberate the oppressed.” Motto of the US Special Forces.

DE: “We recognize that not everyone wants God’s way of peace. The cost is high. The life of Jesus demonstrated the loss of security, transformation, suffering, and dying. . . . Let us be bold. In the face of so many terrors, let us fight off disillusion. The Holy Spirit must rise up in you and me to set all people free.”

Military: “Almighty GOD, Who art the Author of Liberty and the Champion of the Oppressed, hear our prayer. We, the men of Special Forces, acknowledge our dependence upon Thee in the preservation of human freedom. Go with us as we seek to defend the defenseless and to free the enslaved. . . . It is for Thee that we do battle, and to Thee belongs the victor’s crown.” (Special Forces Prayer.)

“I know that I will be called upon to perform tasks in isolation, far from familiar faces and voices, with the help and guidance of my God.” (From the Special Forces Creed.)

Two late additions: “People want to live in peace; they want to grow up in a peaceful environment. And the decision mottoI made is going to help the Iraqi government do that.” Outgoing US president, February 14, 2007.

“Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right. This nation must continue to speak out for justice and truth. We must always be willing to act in their defense — and to advance the cause of peace.” Outgoing president, farewell speech, January 15, 2009

And so forth. To be sure, there are other, more warlike passages in the documents quoted. But the point is that the DE’s carefully non-specific talk of God, sacrifice, the oppressed, risk etc., could be folded into them and not be noticed, except possibly for the single mention of “nonviolent direct action.”

My suspicion is that the authors of the DE have little or no inkling of what’s described here. And I also suspect this is an indication that among the plannners and presenters there is very little direct familiarity with the military, the wars that it makes in the name of peace, or the extensive religious justifications of such wars as God’s will, America’s divinely-ordained mission, and the path for true followers of Jesus.

I am not the first to point out this huge cultural gap; the book AWOL does it in convincing detail. AWOL

But the book does not make the point that such innocence fails to serve the work of religious peacemaking, indeed sharply limits its potential. So let me make it, loud and clear.

One hopes that the revised text to be delivered Friday will manage to acquire a modicum of specificity, at least enough so that there is some recognizable space between it and frankly more military texts and prayers. To that end, here is a proposed list of nouns that might be worked into it:

war; violence; militarism; military industrial complex; torture; Iraq; Afghanistan; Gaza; Christian Zionism; soldiers; wounded; casualties; imperialism . . .

You are invited to add more.

And by the way – there has been much talk this week, and in particular today, about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy. It’s worth noting here that at Fort Bragg, near where I live at Quaker House, they too have annual ceremonies to remember Dr. King.

Are they the “wrong” kind of commemorations? Maybe. But let us remember – does anyone here?– that the US military was racially desegrated well ahead of the rest of US society.

And looking ahead. Tomorrow we are supposed to be given opportunities to join “focus groups” on topics selected from brief discussions after the epistle Thursday night. To have such specificity delayed until the conference’s last day seems to me very strange and unhelpful; bass-ackward as they say in North Carolina.

Oh well. I’m hoping for one on torture and accountability. That’s an awfully specific, and potentially non-positive subject compared to the pablum we’ve been fed. Let’s see if it happens.

3 thoughts on “Conference, Day Three: A Rule of Thumb & The Invisible Epistle”

  1. Friend Fager,

    Your questions about conference content, and the value of traveling across the country to sit in a room with a broad range of people without engaging them in discussion, resonates with a concern I’ve carried lately regarding the format of such our religious gatherings.

    We spend our time and resources to gather with people of God and when we arrive we become so heavily programmed that little or no room is made for seeking God together. We decide on catchy titles for speeches and workshops and share our stories and try to think of what we can do to solve some problem in the world.

    Friends have fallen into a form of idolatry believing that through our own power we can manipulate worldly systems to address the worldly symptoms of Divine problems. Clearly there have been successes and failures in this battle, but it comes to me that we must allow our hearts to be transformed as we submit ourselves to following God, trusting in a Divine power to act through us to face with Love and Light the low powers of violent judgement. If we do not do this, how can we call ourselves inheritors of the spiritual lineage of the Religious Society of Friends?

    Mac Lemann

  2. Chuck – I’m really far behind in reading your blog, but wanted you to know that way out here in Illinois, I’m with you. Friends & those of all “historic peace churches” especially must begin with acceptance before moving on to action. We too bear responsibility for Christianity’s militaristic leadership both present and historical (have you seen the movie “Constantine’s Sword”? something of what I am talking about) rather than sink into denial, self-censorship and wishful thinking. Thanks for your writing and leadership, Patricia McMillen

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